A British view of the Empire

Print edition : November 10, 2001

Ornamentalism: How the British saw their Empire by David Cannadine; the Penguin Press; pages 264, $25.

The Ideological Origins of the British Empire by David Armitage; Cambridge University Press; pages 239, $19.95.

THE British Empire is now a thing of the past. But there is no let-up in the production of books on the subject. The historian David Cannadine has aimed to break new ground by addressing the issues of the Empire as a social structure and also as a social concept. The author's contention is that so far scholarly literature on the subject has emphasised the privilege of colour over class, of race over rank, of collectivities over individualities, but has paid the least attention to the Empire as a functioning social structure.

Cannadine points out that a common thread of aristocracy ran through Britain's new settlers, which meant an eagerness for honours such as hereditary distinctions. It was a firmly held view that titles and privileges would bind the officials and others to the mother country. So a separate Order was created for Canada. A status-conscious class ruled the colonies. Governors were not only politically powerful but were at the apex of the social hierarchy.

Eventually Canada, Australia and New Zealand became autonomous, and the Empire meant the Indian Empire. In the colonies the social structure of England was replicated. Because of that there was nothing exotic in the Empire. This element was prominent in India and other Asian and African colonies of Britain. After the 1857 Mutiny in India, the British rulers reversed the policy of their predecessors. Formerly, Lord William Bentinck, Macualay and Lord Dalhousie wanted to overturn the ruling Indian classes. But after the Mutiny it was thought wise to protect and foster these classes so that they would serve as reliable allies, although they were in fact dependants, who danced to the tune of the foreign rulers.

Contrary to common understanding, in the days of East India Company these new rulers thought that caste was an essential feature of the Indian social system, which was to them analogous to their own hierarchical structure. Government officials began thinking in terms of caste and religion. This helped the rulers keep Indians fighting among themselves. Electoral politics strengthened this division further.

Indian society was taken to be caste-ridden and led by the princes. Disraeli had romantic ideas about Indian society and the Empire, which were shared by the Viceroy during his prime ministership, Lord Lytton. They took special pride in proclaiming Queen Victoria as the Empress of India in 1876 when large parts of the country were in the grip of a famine. Most of the Viceroys and Governors were happy in the company of the Indian princes, who arranged elaborate ceremonies of welcome. There were banquets and hunting parties. Pomp and ceremony was a great attraction to these high functionaries. Yet they did not consider the princes to be on an equal footing. It was also thought that the princes and other privileged classes could be pitted against the growing nationalist force.

Cannadine describes in detail how in various African colonies as well as in Egypt, British officials maintained this hierarchical vision. This self-deception and make-believe meant ornamental spectaculars. But this did not carry conviction with many British politicians. Gladstone opposed the bestowing of the title of Empress on the Queen. Keir Hardy considered monarchy and flummery absurd. Here Cannadine makes a slight mistake. He says that both Hardy and The Manchester Guardian supported the Maharaja of Gwalior's behaviour at the Durbar in 1911. The Maharaja in question was of Baroda, not of Gwalior, who, it was alleged, did not show proper respect to the Emperor (King George V).

After giving an elaborate description of various rituals and ceremonies, Cannadine underlines his thesis that "the whole purpose of the British Empire was to maintain traditional rulerships as a fortress of social security in a changing world". And in that enterprise, "the colour of a person's skin was less significant than his position in the local social hierarchy; the really important category was status, and as such it was fundamental to all other categories." Cannadine expects you not to think about the Empire in an oversimplified way, as white and black. He says it is time orientalism is re-oriented.

Even with a liberal and objective viewpoint, it is difficult to accept that in this enterprise of the Empire, race or colour was not important and that it was the social class that was the main consideration with the Empire's builders and guardians. Indians cannot swallow this assertion of the author. Some illustrations would be sufficient.


During the East India Company regime both Mill and Macualay, without studying Indian history and philosophy, regarded them of no consequence and rejected them out of hand. History books detail numerous cases of high-handed behaviour by English officers, who without any provocation would whip anybody in the streets. Inhuman treatment was meted out to labourers working for English planters.

Things did not change much after the Company's regime was terminated following the Mutiny and India came under the direct control of the British government. The stubborn refusal to appoint qualified Indians to the higher government posts was owing to the superiority complex of the British. It was thought that Indians would panic in a crisis situation, and so executive posts were denied to them for a long time. Romesh Chandra Dutt complains that he was posted in remote areas for a long time and was not considered for posts in metropolitan areas. Lord Salisbury was shameless enough to appeal to the base instincts of the electorate when he said that a black man like Dadabhai Naoroji should not be elected.

An ordinary Englishman did not want Justice Ranade to be a co-passenger in a railway compartment and so he threw Ranade's luggage out. Afterwards, when he came to know that Ranade was a Judge, he tried to make amends. When Gopal Krishna Gokhale wanted to reserve a berth in the P.& O. liner to go to South Africa, he was asked to pay for the whole cabin, as white passengers did not want to travel in the same cabin with him. Gokhale refused to pay the excess charge and the shipping company had to yield. Lord Curzon once said that Indians and Asians in general lacked the sense of truth and also character.

The Prince of Wales, on a visit to India, found the behaviour of many British officers towards Indians reprehensible. In a letter to his mother, Queen Victoria, he expressed his resentment. The Queen on her part asked the Viceroy to do something about it. Eventually a Resident at Hyderabad was sent back to England.

In South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi had to resort to passive resistance in order to establish the rights of the Indians and other Asian people as they were singled out for unequal and unjust treatment.

Such instances are innumerable and they go to prove that although Cannadine's thesis is a good read, it is not a convincing one. Race and social class were the main factors in the governance of the Raj.

PROFESSOR DAVID ARMITAGE explores the ideological origins of the British Empire. His study understands the term 'ideology' in the pragmatic sense and a worldview. This Empire started with the extension of commerce to remote areas of the world. Because of this, the character of the British Empire differed from those of its predecessors. By the time the trans-Atlantic Empire was built, the ideological base of the Empire had been created. It conflicted with the ideas of freedom, and this was resolved only with the American War of Independence.

The author details the various political ideas and practices of different groups that were ultimately consolidated in organised parties. He has also traced the history of the conflict in Protestantism and points out how Protestantism shaped the ideology of the Empire. It was out of the bond of Britishness and British nationhood that imperialism sprang. The conception that emerged in the 1730s defined Britain and the British Empire as Protestant, commercial, maritime and free.

Trade changed the character of the British Empire. Describing the characteristics of various empires, Armitage says that if the Roman empire was built for expansion, that of Sparta for war, and that of China for natural tranquillity, the British Empire was built for commerce. Britain defended its Empire not with the aid of a standing army, but with its navy. It retained liberty at home by constitutional separation. There was an idea that Britain would give the form of government to the people of the colonies which it had at home. This evolution was not smooth, and at times it was painfully tortuous. Besides, the ideological discussions in Britain and the introduction of education in the colonies generated the spirit of nationalism and a desire for freedom among the people of the colonies.

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